Resistance Training: Builds Up Your Muscles & Your Mind
Resistance training with weights, stretchy bands or your own body not only builds up muscles, it’s good for your mood, mind and metabolism, too
By Sasha Kildare
Strength training is practically a way of life for Conrad. The lean 31-year-old began seeing psychologists as a child and has been diagnosed with bipolar, anxiety and ADHD. When he committed to adopting a healthier lifestyle in his 20s, working out became a crucial part of that.
Conrad lists multiple mental health rewards from daily exercise, including feeling more calm, having a sense of commitment and consistency in his life, and better sleep, which in turn keeps him more mentally and physically fit.
Now he owns and operates Bands and Body in Santa Monica, California, offering a program that combines nutrition coaching and something he calls “multi-limb resistance training” that works muscle groups in synchronicity rather than isolating one area at a time.
Resistance training is one of four broad and complementary categories of exercise, namely endurance, strength, balance and flexibility. (Of course, there’s a lot of crossover: A pursuit like active yoga touches on all four categories at once.)
Balance and flexibility are self-explanatory. Endurance training may be more familiar as aerobic exercise or, in gym parlance, “cardio.” This is anything that elevates your heart rate and breathing, from brisk walking and yard work to biking and basketball.
In strength training, also known as resistance training, you stress your muscles in order to make them … well, stronger. Your mind may jump to body-building, which people often think of as a way to tone up and loo
k better. There’s a bigger picture here, however.
Science suggests that strength training in its various forms contributes to better balance, improved sleep and mood, lower risk for cardiac disease, enhanced metabolism, and stronger bones—of special interest to post-menopausal women who are at higher risk for osteoporosis.
There are three basic methods to work your muscles. You can use weights, whether hand-held or in machines (think Cybex circuit); stretchy loops or ties called resistance bands; or your own body, as in old-fashioned calisthenics and isometric exercises.
Plenty of everyday activities count as well, such as raking wet leaves and shoveling snow, carrying heavy grocery bags, lifting a toddler, and scrubbing floors.
Getting stronger can make it easier to do housework and yardwork, give you better results in recreational sports, and reduce fatigue related to exertion. Conrad cites other, intangible boosts to well-being. For one, a sense of accomplishment from “the ability to push past your limits, to see how much you can improve.” For another, better posture.
“The way you hold yourself affects the way that you feel, your mindset, and your confidence level,” he says.
Conrad also describes a meditative aspect to what he calls the “mind-muscle relationship.” He points out that focusing on form not only helps you avoid injury, but also forces you into the moment and makes you become more aware of your physical self.
“Strength training gives you many small milestones,” he reflects. “Learning form, technique, and very diverse complicated movement gets you in touch with your body.”
Muscle & Memory
Physical activity of any kind will be helpful, but doing both endurance and strength activities would be ideal. You don’t need to join a gym or even buy equipment— a couple of soup cans can serve as hand weights, any doorway offers resistance for isometric exercises, and a flat surface the length of your body suffices for a set of lunges or the like.
As a professional house cleaner, Wanda fulfills her quota of resistance training during her work day through scrubbing, lifting and vacuuming. The Alberta woman was diagnosed with bipolar after she went through menopause and recently vowed to walk more regularly to combat feelings of low energy and for overall health.
With two parks not far from where she lives, she likes to get out and hike for an and hike for an hour or more.
“I usually have to walk an hour to feel really good. Once I hit an hour something in my body changes. It seems to help lift me up a bit,” she says.
We’ve all heard lots about why getting up and moving is good for mind, body and spirit. Many of the benefits touted for cardio exercise hold true for strength training, too.
Both have been shown to sharpen brain function, especially memory. (In strength training, this may have something to do with a protein called insulin-like growth factor, which nurtures brain neurons.) Neurosurgeon Brett Osborn, DO, an avid body builder, touts the connection between weight training and brain growth.
As you train your muscles, Osborn says, you are training all the networks in the nervous system that produce each movement. The brain forms new neuronal pathways, new synaptic connections.
“The formation of new synapses leads to better processing speed of the brain, which can be measured,” he explains.
Studies have linked resistance workouts to increased self-esteem as well as reduced anxiety and depression. This may relate to monoamine neurotransmitters that affect mood, including dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
“Exercise releases all of the monoamines,” points out Mohammed Alsuwaidan, assistant professor of psychiatry at University of Toronto and head of the Mood & Anxiety Disorders Program at Kuwait Center for Mental Health. Furthermore, he adds, “the most powerful antioxidant we know is exercise.”
Antioxidants defend against oxidation, a process which essentially “rusts” our cells and contributes to aging, disease, and other ills. Alsuwaidan says higher levels of oxidizing agents known as free radicals have been found in people with bipolar.
Lack of exercise, meanwhile, is one of the major factors in chronic inflammation, which has been implicated in a multitude of physical and mental conditions, including bipolar. (Poor diet and stress are high on the list, too.) According to Osborn, resistance training triggers your body’s anti-inflammatory response.
“You’re stimulating your muscles by traumatizing them, affecting the genes in the cells that you are injuring. Those genes that regulate inflammation are being switched on,” he explains.
“The more the muscle is taxed during a training session, the greater the adaptive or reparative response,” he adds—which means muscle soreness after a workout can be a welcome sign.
Resistance training also can be a potent weapon in weight management because muscle burns more calories than fat cells do. As you increase your ratio of muscle to body fat, you raise your resting metabolism. That means your body uses more calories while you’re sitting or sleeping. (Aerobic exercise cranks up your caloric use but doesn’t affect your overall metabolism in the same way.)
Plenty of everyday activities count as well…carrying heavy grocery bags, lifting a toddler, and scrubbing floors.
Body image issues aside, maintaining a healthy weight takes away some of the fuel for chronic inflammation, Alsuwaidan says.
Abdominal fat cells are a factory for chronic low-level inflammation,” he explains, adding, “Inflammation is hard on the brain cells.”
Alsuwaidan has a simple prescription: exercise intensely enough to sweat at least five days a week, for at least 20 to 30 minutes each time. He feels strongly that exercise should be the third leg of any treatment program, equal in importance to medication and therapy.
“I think it borders on malpractice that we are not so gung ho about exercise,” he says, not entirely tonguein- cheek.
Meg, a stay-at-home mom from Alberta, has embraced the importance of physical activity in managing her bipolar.
“If I include the right and proper exercise into my lifestyle, I am less likely to have my emotions take over and suffocate my mental clarity,” says Meg, who was diagnosed in 2012.
Meg, 39, says a sedentary lifestyle leaves her vulnerable to “a negative mindset.” Thanks to her exercise regimen, “the anxiety, the depression, that I have been prone to in the past—being in that rut, that victim mode—is less and less likely.”
To stick with exercising, Meg welcomes variety in her workouts. A hip injury last year inspired her to do more resistance training, partly to prevent further injuries and rebound more easily from bouts of sciatica.
She might strap weights to her ankles or arms while she does housework or runs errands. She also uses resistance bands and elements of yoga and tai chi.
Holding yoga poses enlists the body’s weight to challenge your muscles. Downward dog, for example, builds arm and leg strength while also stretching the spine, hips, hamstrings, and calves for better flexibility. A proper plank pose— the position you’d get into to do pushups— works both arms and abs. Shifting between downward dog and plank, or hopping from a plank to a squat and back, ups the ante.
Thanks to resistance training, Meg says, “I feel like an athlete. I feel like my body is strong and flexible and able to move like I need to move.”
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As with any exercise program, remember to start small and build up gradually no matter what form of resistance training you explore. Touch base with your physician if you’ve been sedentary or have other health issues.
Brett Osborn, DO, author of Get Serious: A Neurosurgeon’s Guide to Optimal Health and Fitness, also emphasizes the importance of charting your progress, along with proper nutrition and sleep.
As a weight lifter, Osborn suggests a basic deadlift, overhead press, and pull-up or rowing. Although this program should only take three to four hours total a week, he stresses the importance of intensity—although he also cautions against overtraining.
“You have to learn body mindfulness. Push yourself to those limits and back off…. If you are not uncomfortable, you are not going to amass the gains, biochemical and physical. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Proper form matters when using free weights, so consider working with a trainer to start with or at least consulting how-to videos for the key considerations to injury prevention.
Warm up before a session of strength training with five minutes of jumping rope, jumping jacks, side shuffles, or something along those lines. (If you’re not familiar with an exercise term like “side shuffles,” there are plenty of videos online to fill you in.) During your workout, stay aware of how long you take between sets so that your heart rate doesn’t drop too far.
To prevent injury, your warmup should also include what are known as dynamic stretches— side bends, trunk twists, alternate toe touches, arm swings, and other movements that loosen you up through moderate movement. Static stretches—the kind you hold for a while—are no longer recommended for “cold” muscles.
Don’t overlook ways to work muscle-building movements into your daily activities. For example, squat to pick something up rather than bending over, do pushups against a kitchen wall while waiting for the teakettle to boil, or press your hands repeatedly against the sides of the door frame when you pass from one room to another.
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Printed as “Going Strong”, Summer 2015